(Map p. 50)
The northern section of Natal before the war16 roughly assumed the shape of a wedge driven in between the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. The Drakensberg Range on the one side and the Buffalo River on the other formed the cleaving surfaces, Majuba and Laing's Nek were the cutting edge, and the base was the Tugela River.
In mechanics a wedge is an instrument which can be usefully employed only under favourable circumstances. It has many disadvantages. It is easily jammed. The driving power at the base must be considerable; much of the force is absorbed by the friction on the surfaces; the progress made is very slow; and if the surfaces encounter a more tenacious material they will be perforated. A wedge is intended chiefly for cleavage and disruption when less clumsy methods are not at hand.
The defects of a wedge as a mechanical power at once became apparent to the British force which occupied Natal when war became inevitable. The cutting edge was inaccessible and liable to injury which could not be easily repaired; much trouble was anticipated from the presence of Boer commandos in contact with the surfaces; the base did not appear to be sufficiently well designed to receive the impact of the propelling force; and there were grave doubts as to the soundness of the material of which an important section of the wedge, namely Ladysmith, was constructed.
It was therefore proposed by the military authorities that the Natal wedge should not be used as an instrument in the war. To this the civil government at Pietermaritzburg strongly objected on account of the evil moral effect which the abandonment of a considerable proportion of the Colony to the enemy would exercise upon the general situation in South Africa, and of the loss of prestige which the evacuation would entail in the minds of the natives, who numbered three-quarters of a million. Under pressure from the Colonial Office, and against its own judgment, the Army of Natal set itself to work upon the Wedge.
The mistake soon became manifest, although the artisans did their best. The Wedge was not an effective instrument; its cutting edge was never in operation; and in a very few weeks it was hewn into a mangled, cumbrous and irregular mass, which could neither be advanced nor withdrawn and which for nearly five months led a precarious and unhappy existence. Its distress necessitated the recasting of the plan of the South African campaign and a pernicious "moral effect" was not avoided. One British Army besieged in an open town surrounded by heights, while another was lying impotent upon the banks of the Tugela, eighteen miles distant, was the result of a few weeks' work with the Natal Wedge, which had been forced by the civilian strategists into the reluctant hands of the troops.17
When Sir George White arrived in Natal on October 7 he found Sir W. Tenn Symons carrying out the wedge policy of the Colonial Government. Part of the latter's force was at Ladysmith and part was protecting the collieries in the Dundee district. It was his intention to advance northwards to Newcastle as soon as he was reinforced by the contingent on its way from India, the full strength of which had not arrived at Durban. The position at Dundee was strategically defective, as it was exposed to a raid from the Transvaal border only twelve miles distant, and it was actually further from the Orange Free State than Ladysmith. Its defects as a tactical position were still more obvious as it was commanded by hills.
Such, in a few words, was the situation with which White was called upon to deal. He had two courses before turn; he could accommodate himself to it or he could endeavour to modify it. He attempted the latter, and failing he recurred to the former. He saw at once the insecurity of Symons' detached force, but being unable to convince the Natal Government of the necessity of withdrawing it he reluctantly allowed it to remain.
Soon the Boer plan of campaign, which aimed at the isolation of the British Troops in the wedge, began to unroll itself. Fourteen thousand Transvaalers under Joubert, who had first tested the cutting edge by sending a coal truck through the tunnel at Laing's Nek and who suspected an ambush when he found it clear, were moving south on Newcastle, while six thousand Free Staters under Martin Prinsloo were pouring through the Drakensberg passes west of Ladysmith. The Natal Government now began to feel uneasy about the safety of the colonial capital and even of Durban; and informed White that undue importance had been attached to the occupation of Dundee and that its retention was no longer desirable. Thus in little more than a week White's original objection was reconsidered and upheld. But again he allowed his better judgment to be over-borne. Symons, whom he instructed to withdraw southwards unless he felt his position to be absolutely secure, was at his own urgent request allowed to remain. Next day, October 19, Elandslaagte, on the railway between Ladysmith and Dundee, was occupied by a Boer commando, and it was reported that 4,000 burghers were ready to cross the Buffalo River at Jager's Drift during the night.
Symons' camp was pitched about a mile west of Dundee which lay between it and Talana and Lennox Hills, which commanded the town from the east. Some hours before sunrise on October 20 a British picket on Talana was attacked. The incident was reported to Head Quarters, where it was not deemed to be of much importance and the routine duties of the morning were not interrupted. The artillery horses had been taken down as usual to water, and some companies had even fallen in for skirmishing drill, when the curtain of the morning mist upon the higher ground was raised to the first scene in the Natal drama. The eastward hills, looming up darkly into the brightening sky, were seen to be occupied in force by the enemy under L. Meyer, and soon his shells were falling among the tents.
The troops in camp, though taken by surprise, pulled themselves together with admirable promptitude. The Boer guns were soon silenced, the figures of men silhouetted along the sky line vanished, and the infantry was ordered out to clear the hill. It was a formidable and dangerous task, but it was facilitated by some of the features of the ground. There was a dry river bed in which the troops could be formed up for attack, and, half a mile beyond, a farmhouse and a plantation afforded some cover; while a donga on the left at right angles to the river bed apparently offered a covered way up the hill to the crest. In the plantation occurred the first calamity of the war. Symons, who had come up impatiently from the lower ground to hurry up the assault, which he thought was being unnecessarily delayed, was mortally wounded. Three days later he paid with his life for his adherence to a forward policy in tactics as well as in strategy; and the command devolved upon Yule.
The donga on the left was found to be useless, as it led nowhere; and the advance was made directly from the plantation towards a wall running along the foot of the hill. Here a long halt was made in order to reorganize the attack, and when the word was given the men pressed forward and threw-themselves upon the rough front of the acclivity after a rush across an open slope. The crest was attained and carried without much difficulty; for all but a few stalwarts had quitted it when they saw the British bayonets pricking upwards towards their hold.
It seemed now that the victory was won, but an unfortunate mistake postponed it. The two field batteries on the plain, which had ceased fire before the final infantry rush, changed position and came under a heavy fire from the Boers who were still in possession of a section of the Talana ridge. The light was bad and the guns re-opened upon the crest line in the belief that the whole of it was still occupied by the enemy. The practice was excellent, and in a brief space both sides were driven off the hill by the shrapnel. A subsequent attempt to take it was successful. The result of the battle, which lasted from sunrise until 2 p.m., might have been reversed but for the inaction of the main Boer force posted on Lennox Hill under L. Meyer, and of another force on Impati under Erasmus, who, though he could hear the noise of battle pealing through the mist which lay upon the hill, abstained from intervening.
The whole Boer force was now in full retreat along the line by which it had advanced so silently the night before, and Yule ordered the two field batteries up to the nek between Talana and Lennox to pound the retreating burghers as they slowly trekked towards the Buffalo River; but again an unfortunate misapprehension intervened. The officer in command, being under the impression that an armistice asked for by Meyer
two hours before had been granted, refrained from opening fire and the Boers escaped untouched. A serious misadventure marred the success of the day. The 18th Hussars, who at the commencement of the action received orders to hold themselves in readiness to advance when occasion offers, soon appeared to the restless general to be losing their opportunity, and were hustled into activity. They charged in various directions and even made some prisoners; but one squadron lost its way and was captured in an attempt to ride round Impati by a detachment of Erasmus' force at a farm where it had taken refuge.
The fight for Talana Hill encouraged each belligerent. In England it was received as an indication of the early and successful termination of the struggle. The Boers regarded it as a reconnaissance in force from which they had returned with slight loss, and they could boast that they had reaped the first fruits of the harvest of war; a squadron of British cavalry which, with the commanding officer of the regiment, was at once dispatched into captivity at Pretoria, where its arrival was accepted as a proof of a great Boer victory in Natal.
Talana Hill regarded as an isolated event in the Natal campaign was a distinctly successful encounter, the credit of which is due entirely to the infantry engaged in it. Twice the artillery blundered, and the cavalry was inoperative. The extent of the loss suffered by the Natal Field Force in the death of Symons must always be a matter for speculation. But it is at least probable that if he had survived to take part in the subsequent operations, his ardent, impetuous, Prince Rupert like temperament would have beneficially impregnated with greater audacity the stolid and ponderous tactics and strategy of the Natal campaign.
The unreality of the Talana Hill victory soon became apparent. The threat of Erasmus sitting on Impati still impended, and Yule moved his camp next day to a site which he believed to be out of range. But in the meantime Erasmus awoke from his trance and, on the afternoon of October 21, opened fire with a six-inch gun,18 and again Yule was compelled to shift his camp. He had already asked for reinforcements, but White was unable to spare them, and recommended him to fall back upon Ladysmith. Next day Yule was encouraged by the news of a British success at Elandslaagte; and with the object of intercepting the Boers who were reported to be retreating on Newcastle, he endeavoured to seize Glencoe, but Erasmus on Impati forbade the movement.
Shortly before midnight on October 19, Kock, a Free Stater who commanded a force chiefly composed of foreign auxiliaries and who was working southwards from Newcastle, sent on an advanced party to swoop down upon the railway between Ladysmith and Glencoe, and Elandslaagte station was seized. Early next morning Kock came in with his main body. White at first made no serious attempt to clear the line beyond sending out a reconnoitring force which he soon recalled, as he was reluctant to employ troops away from the immediate neighbourhood of Ladysmith, which had been already threatened on the N.W. by Free State commandos.
The news however of Yule's success at Talana changed the situation and seemed to justify a more forward policy; and early in the morning of October 21 French was sent out to re-occupy Elandslaagte and repair the line. Although he succeeded in driving the enemy out of the railway station and in holding it for a very brief period, he found himself outclassed in artillery and too weak to stand up to the Boers, and withdrew a few miles southward; at the same time asking White to reinforce him. It was reported that Kock expected shortly to be reinforced.
The main Boer position was on the northern limb of a horseshoe arrangement of kopjes which develops close to the railway station and swings round southwards and westwards, at an elevation generally about 300 feet above the normal level of the ground. Two posts were also held north of the railway. The southern limb of the horseshoe was lightly held, and against it French, without waiting for the arrival of all his reinforcements, moved with his mounted troops, and easily cleared it. Here he was joined by the Manchester Regiment, one of the battalions of the brigade of infantry sent out by White under the command of Ian Hamilton, and established himself on the left flank of the Boer position on the two kopjes on the northern limb of the horseshoe.
The other two battalions, the Devonshire Regiment and the Gordon Highlanders, simultaneously came into position, the former for a frontal attack, and the latter as a reserve acting in the interval between the Manchesters and the Devons; while the artillery advanced between the two limbs and shelled the enemy's position on the kopjes. The artillery preparation enjoined by the regulations had, however, to be curtailed owing to the approach of night, but not before the two Boer guns on the southern kopje were silenced; and then the main attack was delivered.
The Boers on the kopjes were reinforced by a body of German auxiliaries under Schiel, who had been driven out of a position north of the railway by the cavalry acting on the left and who circled round to the main position, but the reinforcement did not avail them. Hardly pressed on their left, they were unable to withstand the frontal charge of the Devons led by Hamilton in person. The guns were captured and the position occupied at sunset. By this time most of the Boers were in retreat and their tracks were made devious by the cavalry, which so long as light remained harried them hither and thither.
Suddenly a white flag was seen fluttering near the laager between the kopjes. There is no reason to believe that it was treacherously raised, but it compelled Hamilton to order the Cease Fire. Yet at once half a hundred Boers started up and rushed as a forlorn hope upon the crest: a remnant of stalwarts, who even succeeded in firing a round or two from the guns which had just been taken from them. There was a moment or two of doubt and bewilderment, but Hamilton with the help of a few junior officers rallied the waverers, and earned the Victoria Cross, which on account of his high military rank was withheld from him; the guns were recovered, the laager rushed, and the tactical victory was complete.
Elandslaagte was as unreal a victory as Talana. The troops had not rested many hours in their bivouacs on the ridge before they received orders to return without delay to Ladysmith, which was still threatened from the west by the Free State commandos; and by noon on October 22 not only had Elandslaagte been hurriedly evacuated, but stores, ammunition and even some prisoners had been left behind in the scuttle. Next day it passed without effort into the possession of a small body of Free Staters, who were astonished to find it abandoned.
Meanwhile Yule after the failure of his movement on Glencoe found his position insecure and reluctantly resolved to retire on Ladysmith, although it entailed leaving not only his supplies and ammunition but also his wounded behind him. The victory of Talana had indeed been won but the victors were exhausted by it and unfit to stand up to Erasmus on Impati. It became necessary for Yule to disappear immediately and stealthily.
On October 23 soon after midnight the maimed and harassed force slipped quietly away and trudged wearily to the south. When the mist rolling aside next morning disclosed the evacuation the Transvaalers on Impati occupied the town almost simultaneously with the reoccupation of Elandslaagte by their allies the Free Staters; and thus the battlefields of two British victories were redeemed by the defeated. It is no reproach to Yule that military necessity compelled him to leave behind the wounded of Talana Hill. The death of Symons on October 23 was a pathetic episode of the Natal Campaign. He passed away of his mortal wound while the Boers were looting the camp in which he was lying and wondering, in the rare intervals of conscious thought, why the troops whom he had led so gallantly had been taken from him; and for half a year his grave lay lonely in the enemy's country before another British soldier could stand beside it.
The retreat of Yule's force was effected without more trouble than that which was caused by the nature of the country and the alternations of the climate. Van Tonder's Pass—a difficult defile which would have been impassable under opposition—was crossed, and a sudden spate on the Waschbank river only temporarily checked the retirement. A column was sent out from Ladysmith by White to check the Free Staters who had re-occupied Elandslaagte and to prevent them falling on Yule, and on October 24 they were engaged with success at Rietfontein. The sound of the artillery in this action was audible to Yule on the Waschbank, but he was unable to account for it.
On the afternoon of October 25 Yule was within one day's march of Ladysmith. He proposed to halt for the night; but suddenly a patrol from a column sent out by White to help him in appeared, and he received orders to press forward to Ladysmith.
The exhausted men resumed their march, and the misery of that night's journey was probably never exceeded during any subsequent movement in the war. Sodden, hungry, weary, disheartened; men and transport animals inextricably intermingled; the column plodded onwards in the rain and the night. A halt at daylight next morning brought in some of the stragglers and gave a little rest to those who were still in the ranks; and by mid-day the men of Talana Hill had trudged into Ladysmith.
The urgency of the immediate resumption of the march had arisen from White's anxiety for the safety of Yule's force. Rietfontein had indeed, like Talana and Elandslaagte, been a tactically successful engagement and had similarly been followed by a retreat; but Yule was exposed to an attack by Erasmus, to whom he had given the slip at Dundee during the night of October 22 and who was known to be endeavouring to overtake him. Erasmus was believed to be acting from the direction of Elandslaagte; but fortunately for Yule his movements were not judiciously directed and his information was imperfect.
(Map, p. 139)
All the detached members of the Natal Wedge had now been driven in and the reconnaissances sent out by White on October 27 and the following days showed that the Boers had lost no time in pressing on to Ladysmith. The Transvaalers were apparently in force N.E. of the town on a section of the arc in which Lombard's Kop, Long Hill, and Pepworth Hill were the chief physical features; the Free Staters were approaching from the N.W. and a small force of them under A.P. Cronje was already in touch with the Transvaalers; their main body, however, seemed to be making for the Tugela in order to isolate Ladysmith from the south. On October 29 White assumed the offensive with the greater part of his command, and endeavoured to cut through the still unconsolidated investing line and to thwart the co-operation of the allies.
The general idea was that an infantry brigade, supported on its right flank by cavalry acting towards Lombard's Kop, should attack the enemy, who was presumed to be in force on Long Hill and Pepworth Hill. On the left flank of the attack a column would endeavour to pass through the Boer line, and having seized Nicholson's Nek due north of Ladysmith would either close it against the retreating enemy or hold it as a post through which a mounted force could debouch in pursuit on to the more practicable ground beyond.
Some difficulty in drawing and loading up ammunition delayed the start of the column, which under the command of Carleton was to secure the left flank of the operations; and fearing that daylight on October 30 would find his vulnerable force still on the march he determined soon after midnight to halt short of Nicholson's Nek, from which he was then two miles distant. He had succeeded in passing through the enemy's picket line, and was perhaps not justified in discontinuing his advance, although his instructions were to take Nicholson's Nek only "if possible." But an error of judgment made by a commanding officer on a dark night in a strange country acting under instructions which left him a free hand must not be judged severely, and had it not been for a disaster which could not be foreseen, he would probably have been commended for his prudence.
Kainguba Hill, which rises on the left of the road to Nicholson's Nek, seemed to offer a suitable stage on the journey and towards it the column was diverted. While the men were climbing the steep and stony hillside a panic suddenly seized the transport mules. It may have been a spontaneous emotion, or it may have originated in an alarm raised by the Boers who were holding the crest. The animals stampeded down the slope, and carrying with them not only the reserve ammunition but also the signalling equipment, the water carts, and the component parts of the mountain artillery, charged through the rear of the column. The timely exertions of the officers checked the general scare that was imminent; and with the exception of a few score of infantry men and gunners the column reached the summit before daybreak, having lost almost everything needed for a successful occupation of it.
Misfortune continued relentlessly to pursue the column. A position was taken up on the hill on the supposition that it could only be attacked from the south, but at daylight C. de Wet, who here came upon the stage which afterwards he often filled so effectively, threatened it from the north with a Free State commando. A gesture made by an officer in order to attract attention was interpreted as a signal to retire; another officer thinking that his company was left alone on the summit, though it was in fact within seventy yards of an occupied sangar, raised the white flag; and almost at the same moment a bugle sounded the Cease Fire. Neither the white flag nor the bugle call was authorized by Carleton; but a glance at the situation showed him that they could not be repudiated and after a gallant struggle to maintain an indefensible position he surrendered. Nearly a thousand men were led away into captivity.
The main infantry attack was made by a force of five battalions with six field batteries under the command of Grimwood. He marched out of Ladysmith soon after midnight, but had not covered half the distance to the point of attack when an unfortunate incident deprived him of all his artillery and of two of his battalions. The guns marching in the centre of the column and acting under orders which were not communicated to Grimwood, diverged to the right and were followed by the two battalions in rear; and the absence of nearly half the force was not discovered by him until daybreak, and after he had taken up the position assigned south of Long Hill. Daybreak also revealed the fact that Long Hill which was assumed to be the Boer left was not occupied, and that Long Tom from Impati had been emplaced on Pepworth Hill. The cavalry brigade under French upon whom Grimwood relied to protect his right flank was two miles away in his rear; and finding himself attacked on that flank instead of from the front he was compelled to swing round and almost reverse his front. Thus far the general scheme of attack had signally failed. Carleton on the left had not reached Nicholson's Nek and was in trouble; Grimwood with nearly half of his command gone astray, and having discovered that the enemy's left was not on Long Hill but on Lombard's Kop, had to improvise a scheme of his own; while French instead of conforming to Grimwood was compelling Grimwood to conform to him. At 8 a.m. Grimwood was suffering severely from artillery fire, and French whose cavalry now prolonged Grimwood's line southwards was with difficulty holding his own. The enemy, whom the general idea destined to be outflanked and rolled up towards the north and pursued by mounted troops issuing from Nicholson's Nek, was instead attacking vigorously from Lombard's Kop on the east and seemed likely to outflank White; the infantry reserves under Ian Hamilton were almost expended; and the British artillery was unable to silence the Boer guns.
All through the forenoon Ladysmith and the little garrison left behind for its defence was the target of Long Tom on Pepworth Hill. The fugitives from Kainguba brought in disheartening reports and the Boers seemed to be threatening from the north. W. Knox, a Horse Artillery officer who had been left in command, anticipated an attack which he had little chance of meeting successfully with the scanty force at his disposal and sent an urgent message to White, who at noon ordered the battle to be broken off and the troops to retire to Ladysmith.
The retreat was effected in confusion. Grimwood's force was the first to be withdrawn and was saved from disaster by the gallant stand made by two field batteries as it crossed the level ground. The cavalry scampered home in Grimwood's track. A dramatic episode brought the battle of Lombard's Kop to a close. Just as the baffled troops were entering Ladysmith a battery of naval guns, which had arrived from Durban that morning and had gone immediately into action, succeeded in silencing Long Tom and some other guns on Pepworth Hill, nearly four miles distant. In the evening Joubert sent in a flag of truce to White to announce Carleton's surrender.
The Natal Wedge disappeared in the smoke of the battle of Lombard's Kop and was never again heard of as an instrument in the Natal campaign. The Boers filled the gaps in the investing line without difficulty, and on November 2 the Siege of Ladysmith began. The last man to leave the town was French, who went forth to win honour on distant fields.
In 1902 the Vryheid and Utrecht districts of the Transvaal were annexed to Natal and the wedge disappeared.
They were indeed authorized as early as October 18 to throw it aside but by that time they were committed to its use.
"Long Tom," which was afterwards sent to Ladysmith and subsequently to bombard Rhodes in Kimberley.